Opinion
Allow us our India, not Hindi-stan.
Image: Superfast1111 via Wikimedia Commons

History repeats itself in the most bizarre ways. If Modi and Shah Inc. want to limit liability, they would be wise to heed India, not just Hindustan. The latter is an unknown entity to well over half of India. It is not the name of their country, instead they call their land Bharata or India. For that half, Hindi is a regional language spoken somewhere else while they speak their own national language, be it Bengali, Malayalam or Marathi.

C Rajagopalachari, the great “liberal” of yesteryears tried to foist compulsory Hindi in schools in Madras Presidency in 1939. A move that was a tipping point of Indian politics, not just Tamil Nadu politics. It cost Rajaji his election, launched Kamaraj and reinvigorated Dravidian politics. These changes to and in the Indian federal democracy still reverberate across the country and decide who rules from Delhi.

Fast forward to 2016. A passenger flying from Bangalore to Bagdogra, gets safety instructions neither in Kannada nor Bengali. The Oriya senior citizen has no idea if her train ticket matches her destination. The small town aspirant from Tamil Nadu cannot fill out the application forms for the Indian Army while the educated Manipuri finds the safety instructions on her LPG gas cylinder incomprehensible. Ditto for forms, applications and instructions in banks, public service examinations, railway signs, income tax forms and more.

55% of India speaks no Hindi as per the last census. While astute politicians electioneering across states have had simultaneous translation of their campaign speeches to local tongues since time immemorial, the Prime Minister's Mann Ki Baat tweets are only in Hindi and Onam wishes from Amit Shah were sent out to Keralites in Hindi first even now. Are Hindustanis citizens and Indians vote banks?

This is not a trifling matter of central government that leads to minor inconvenience. It is a matter of public expenditure when the money of the people of India is spent catering only to Hindustan. It is also a grave matter of public safety when medicine labels from Government health centres are in Hindi. And finally, a gross violation fundamental rights of citizens in disabling equal access to public spaces, livelihood options and public services. While a native Hindi speaker can write an entrance examination in her own language, and needs only to learn English additionally to enhance prospects, non-Hindi speakers have no option to write it in their language. They must learn two other languages, both non-native to access basic entitlements in their own state.

With technology like mobile phones, email and printers and a preponderance of unemployed young labour, there is absolutely no excuse any more to such inequality. Availability of forms, signs, call centres, translation and support in any language of choice was once upon a time impractical and difficult to implement in scale and on time. Today, it is simply artificial denial and systematic barrier to non-Hindi speakers that can be overturned with one fell policy swoop. After all, foreign companies like Facebook and Twitter or airlines like Singapore and Lufthansa ensure communication customised to diversity in this very country.

Further, a liberal approach that allows the people of India free choice may actually hasten linguistic cross pollination in more respectful and enjoyable ways. Consumers, audiences, recipients, viewers, parents, voters, job seekers would do their choosing per their language of preference. And they choose Bollywood films in Tamil Nadu and Rajanikanth in Punjab while Manipuris migrate to Bangalore. Free markets have done yeoman service for propagation of language and linked culture in a more sensitive manner.

People are also voting with their feet for English. The poorest aspire to English conversance for their children and the middle class embraces English as first or second language keenly. No wonder English schools have the fastest growing for enrolments with the North Eastern states entirely educating in English, nearly half the South doing so and the Hindi states showing the fastest rate of growth for English schooling. As of 2005 it was already the second most spoken language of India at 23% speaking some and with enrolments racing ahead at 274% between 2003 and 2010, imagine the next two decades.

Perception is reality and it seems that the people of India, including and especially in the Hindi belt, equate English to education, progress, employment and upward mobility. Only political relics of Hindustan equate it to British rule and oppression, deeming it a foreign language instead of a global language. That Hindi is the only possible unifying medium for India is a vestigial thought. It is obviously completely out of touch with where young India is heading.

India's language policy must evolve in keeping with people's views, aspirations and global realities. Article 351 and others that enshrine disproportionate promotion of Hindi by the centre have been abused time and again by successive governments to the detriment of non-Hindi speakers. They no longer have any practical benefits for India in a globalised technological era and are in fact dragging citizens back. They must go.

Non-Hindi states across India must band together towards three clear objectives. Repeal articles that encourage the central government to promote Hindi anywhere. Usher in constitutional amendments to cancel the privilege of Hindi and render it on par with all other official languages while enhancing that list to cover other languages. Declare English as the sole link language across India.

These solutions may not be perfect and certainly need to be reviewed and revised over time but make huge strides towards an egalitarian India with better equity of opportunities. These measures will help equalise citizens in a future friendly manner and privilege choice. Language is culture and identity and embracing that diversity with use of technology and accommodative policy will take India further than Hindustan can ever go. Hindi belt politicians must march with India. It will make us more liberal, tolerant and truly honour diversity beyond platitudes and legalese.

What the eloquent TA Ramalingam Chettiar said in the Constituent Assembly Debates is even truer today, “Hindi is no more national to us than English or any other language.” 

Note: The views expressed here are the personal opinions of the author.